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It’s the first line of defence against infection and repairs bodily harm, but there’s another side to inflammation that threatens rather than protects our overall health

Negative as the word sounds, inflammation is actually our body’s natural reaction to burns, infections and injuries. It’s a normal immune system defence and kicks in when our bodies are under attack.

However, scientific research shows that in some people this defence mechanism doesn’t switch off, which means the body’s defences turn in on themselves, attacking our good health. Scientists believe this puts us more at risk of developing conditions such as type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease. This happens when the acute inflammation that our body uses to fight infections turns into life-changing chronic inflammation (see The different types on p27).

Scientific findings on chronic inflammation

• In obese people, inflammatory proteins triggered in the enlarged fat cells have been linked to metabolic conditions such as insulin resistance.

• Cancerous tumours can set off an immune response causing inflammatory chemicals to fuel tumour growth.

• Recent studies into Alzheimer’s disease have revealed that higher numbers of microglia, a group of immune cells, linger in sufferers’ brains than in those with a healthy brain.

• Research has found chronic inflammation influences the formation of artery-blocking clots, which are the ultimate cause of heart attacks and many strokes.

• A new school of thought also links depression to a physiological response, rather than treating it as a state of mind. Earlier this year, scientists at King’s College London found a link between blood inflammation and increased oxidative stress on the brain, which disrupts brain signalling and leads to depressive symptoms. Now researchers are keen to explore whether this inflammatory response in the brain is the reason antidepressants (which target the emotion neurotransmitters in the brain) are ineffective in some patients. They also want to find out whether certain people are more susceptible to inflammation because of genetics, stress or both.

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